Sep 30, 2010

Money Town

One of the cabins was at the bottom of a hill, and for some reason the remodelers had sealed the crawlspace. Heat wicks moisture out of the ground, so the crawlspace filled with several inches of water. When Dad opened the door there the first time and played his flashlight around, he saw a fungal bloom on the scale of a biblical plague. Every surface was covered with several inches of moist and springy growths; the light revealed iridescent fruiting bodies, green and red and white and black, as though the whole colony had been preparing for this very moment. It was a horrifying discovery, I’m sure, yet it meant another day’s pay fixing this mistake. Dunton is like that—during one particular project several dangerous and critical mistakes are inevitably uncovered, which lead to more projects in their turn. One wonders if it is theoretically possible for a single skilled laborer to make progress there, or if he would be buried under new projects emerging faster than he could finish them.

Let me back up. Dunton Hot Springs is a tiny resort town high in the San Juan Mountains. As recently as the fifties, it was a gold-mining area, but the local operation, the Emma Mine, became unprofitable and the town collapsed. For awhile it was a cheap tourist trap, but a few years back Christoph Henkel, a German businessman, bought it and remodeled into a resort at great expense. I worked there doing light construction for parts of four summers.

My job was helping my dad, who had worked up there on and off for several years by the time I showed up. Dad is a sort of jack-of-all-trades, the kind of guy who can and does design and build his own damn house, thank you very much, and is thus the ideal man to fix the Dunton’s broad-spectrum problems. The town itself once was a bunch of moldering old log cabins from the mining days, but when Christoph got hold of the place he hired some local guys to take the cabins apart, build sound foundations underneath, replace the rotted logs, add wiring, plumbing, septic, sound roofs, and slate floors, and put them back together. This way Christoph’s buddies and guests can get the authentic rustic experience of a seventy-year-old cabin without having to sleep hip-deep in marmot shit. A stay ain’t cheap—the smallest cabin is about $400 per night, but you can sleep in a teepee for $300.

My own adventures at Dunton began with the installation of a door for a wine rack. The door was massive—four feet by eight feet—and when we finally got it installed, it was almost too wide for the hallway. It was a custom piece, a single sheet of glass bordered by four inches of wood, and cost $900. Classic Dunton—spend hundreds of dollars on a custom door without double-checking to see if it will actually fit in the space. The glass is for looking at the wine selection without disturbing the temperature and humidity, which is tightly controlled with a machine.

I’ve got some brown paint on a pair of pants I wore (and still wear) while we built a climbing wall for the Henkel kids and their friends. We enlisted the help of some local talent to weld up the steel frame for the wall, a man named Stuart Steves. Stuart once owned a section of land a ways downstream from Dunton, a massive piece that covers most of a huge basin that his family sold to Christoph for a fortune. A good part of his living comes from heavy equipment he owns, transports, and operates all over the county, though he’s selling hay recently. He and an assistant came over with a stick welder, put together the frame, and helped us lift it into place with a backhoe, as it probably weighed two tons. He’s one of a dying breed of homesteader descendants, hog-rich but still in farming and equipment. Contrast that with the new landed aristocracy building second or third homes up the West Fork, monstrous log edifices that have about as much in common with actual log cabins as a 1982 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has with Carlo Rossi.

The jobs entrusted to me were usually the ones that took little skill, much tolerance of irritation, and physical strength. The quintessential example of this was a demolition/salvage job during the second summer: I was to recover the siding from an old bunkhouse right next to the Emma Mine, about a half-mile downstream of Dunton, down an abandoned road, right next to the river. The bunkhouse was filled with the kind of unaccountable detritus that accumulates inside abandoned buildings: old porn, clothes, religious texts, trash, bulging tin cans, tools, and so forth. Most of it was halfway to dirt. I had some fun arranging the stuff in the hope of baffling future archeologists, folding the retro porn inside the rotting pages of the Book of Mormon for example, until I thought of Hantavirus and retreated. I strapped on a dust mask and set to work.

The siding on this shack was mainly rough-cut 1x12’s that were pretty flimsy after seventy years in the weather, especially the bits that were under the snowpack four months a year. Fortunately, the builders of the bunkhouse had scrimped on the fasteners and only hammered about 200 sixteen and twenty-penny nails into each piece of siding (a normal person would only have used a half-dozen). My job was to somehow detach the boards from the framing, either by pulling each nail individually or by wrenching the whole board out nails and all. Since the process of rusting makes pieces of steel about fifteen percent bigger, each one stuck like hell in the framing, only giving up after a prolonged struggle, ripping out of the wood with a sound like King Tut’s tomb opening. Imagine trying to remove a piece of papyrus intact from a bulletin board, fastened down with 75 staples.

I didn’t do the job on my own, though—there were armies of thumbnail-sized black flies, several divisions for each limb. Occasionally, I would lose control, take off my hat, and kill until my thirst for blood was slaked, while the endless reserves feasted on the corpses of their dead brethren which littered the battlefield in the thousands. As my stack of siding grew and grew, the fiberglass insulation inside the wall became visible, and revealed huge, twisting rodent galleries filled with little mousey carcasses.

Dad came down to help me one day and we started on a different side of the building. This side had some tarpaper under the siding; as we progressed down the face of the wall we discovered it contained a medium-sized bat colony. They evacuated their home in a hurry, which jolted the piss out of us, but more disturbing was the single remaining bat, which stayed huddled on its perch, trembling. Dad peeled it off with a very long stick, ready to run for cover, but it just flew crookedly away.

After about a week of this I had collected all the siding there was to be had, leaving the skeletal wreck of a bunkhouse to be bulldozed later. I collected the pile, removed any lingering nails, and hauled the mess over to Dunton. I remember a rough calculation of how much these old boards were worth given how long I had taken to collect them and how much they had been paying me (fifteen dollars per hour), and came up with about ten bucks a pound. The point of the whole enterprise was to get some “barn wood” siding for a new bathroom they were attaching to one of the cabins, a veneer to make the new building look seventy years old. How better to do that than by peeling the weathered and papery skin off the rotting corpse of another building and nailing it up? After that, we took some galvanized, corrugated steel sheeting, sprayed it with concentrated hydrochloric acid (to remove the protective zinc coating, so it would rust faster), and finished the roof.

The idea of Dunton is as a high-class resort, the kind of place where rich people go to feel rich. It is fairly successful in this respect—it has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, and The New York Times. It is a cool place, I’ll admit that. It’s situated in a staggeringly beautiful part of Colorado, the valley of the upper West Fork of the Dolores River. It’s high, but due to a natural dam downstream, the river meanders slowly for a few miles. Later it gets much steeper and faster like rivers usually are in the mountains, but at Dunton it’s nice and small and calm. Several 14,000-foot peaks peer down from the end of the valley, peaks which are actually the far side of the same range emblazoned on the ambassador of Colorado to the world: the Coors beer can.

Dunton is about five hours from the nearest major airport, but it’s only an hour to Telluride for a small airport and some world-class skiing (at eighty-one bucks a day). Dunton itself, aside from the hot springs (which are artificially heated after a backhoe accident a few years back) provides horseback tours, heliski tours, hiking, mountain climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking, all for a nominal fee, of course. Every year Dunton jacks up its price by forty bucks or so, but business just keeps getting better. Spending a substantial amount of money is about as important as having a vacation, it appears. From the conversations I overheard at Dunton, the rich seem to be anxious about a vacation if they aren’t spending enough money—they heard talk of the Vanderbilts going to the Burj Al Arab in Dubai and eating the finest caviar and foie gras, and they’re not sure they’re getting the finest luxury experience. Supply and demand says that if they are paying more, they must be getting a better experience—and who am I to argue? Christoph’s buddies helped send me to college, after all.

I’m relatively poor by Dunton standards, I’ll freely admit. The Coopers picked up the scraps from the Henkel table for many years. I sometimes wonder if I’m not a kind of reverse snob for mocking these foolish rich folks, spending their money on something I know to be mostly a façade. I must conclude that it’s not the money, it’s the lack of value—these people are paying three, four times what the experience is worth. Still, if someone let me stay up there for free, I would accept in a heartbeat, and for one reason—the food. Dunton’s professional chef (that Christoph sent to Italy to be trained for free) would often test the dishes he made on us, a practice I thought rather dubious on theoretical grounds, but did by no means refuse. It’s a surreal experience to set down your hammer, knock the sawdust off your hands, and take a big chomp out of some Beef Wellington.

Christoph is the most prominent member of the family that controls Henkel corporation, a major consumer products company in Europe and North America. They own these brands: Dial, Loctite (glue), Schwarzkopf (haircare), Pritt (glue sticks), Persil (washing powder), Liofol (lamination), Purex, Fa (shower gel), Ceresit (construction products), Duck (tape), and Teroson (automotive products). They’re big in Europe mostly, but they own a few well-known American brands. They are investing heavily in organic and sustainable-type products, and last year sales were up 2.6 percent to 13.07 billion euros, which makes Christoph, rumor has it, the third-richest man in Germany. He is quite tall, with a small potbelly, while his wife Katrin is fashionably thin. He drives a Porsche Cayenne SUV at breakneck speeds. Katrin is an art dealer, which is supposedly a rapacious business in which she is quite prominent. His two kids are 12 and 14. The whole family speaks three languages (at least).

As I see it, he bought the place on a lark, as a place he could visit every now and then, hired somebody to fix it up, and hired somebody else to see if he couldn’t make some of his money back. The Henkels crash the place about two months a year, kick the paying customers out, and use it as their personal resort—they do own the place, after all. They bring over rich and famous people from all over, accompanied by the kind of ethereal nine-foot goddesses that only seem to grow in Sweden, the kind that look at sweaty, tank top-clad young construction workers with a cruelly flirtatious eye.

Still, they also hang out with some local folks that Christoph has befriended. An old-timer named Billy Joe Moffat is one of those people, a man who lives downstream of Dunton and who owns the best hot springs in the valley (you didn’t hear it from me). The first thing Christoph does when he visits is go for a long soak and a chat down at Billy Joe’s “Paradise Hot Springs.” Christoph bought Billy Joe’s land a while ago, but it doesn’t actually change hands until he dies. The plan is to turn it over to a conservancy trust—an admirable habit of Christoph’s.

There’s a surreal quality about him, a kind of bizarre perspective on life that I felt most strongly when he showed us a huge collection of animal heads he shipped to Dunton, which contained a kill from every antelope species in Africa, the sum total of dozens of intercontinental trips. Apparently, the tiny Dik-Dik is the hardest to bag.

Really, the guy is alright. He’s a little warped, like any rich person, but being a billionaire has to do dark things to you on the inside. I find it hard to blame Christoph for his condition—he was born into the money, after all; his grandfather started the company he inherited. He seems to be a capable businessman. He tries to remember the names of all his employees, and actually succeeds on occasion. He’s funny. The most telling evidence lies in his children, who are relatively polite, intelligent, and unspoiled considering their vast material possessions. I figure a billionaire could be, and usually is, a much bigger asshole. I shudder to imagine myself in such a position.

Dad and I only envy him one thing—a tiny cabin he us had build in Allen Canyon in Utah. It’s on the edge of the Abajo Mountains, in some of the coolest and most remote country in Utah. It’s about an hour down some hardcore four-wheel drive roads, with no land lines, no cell phones, solar power, well water, and a jaw-dropping view. There’s incredible hiking in every direction, and Ute ruins everywhere. Most importantly, there is almost nobody else there. It’s a 40-acre plot in the middle of vast federal holdings, and only one other person has a similar small house there. From the bean fields of Dove Creek nearby, one might think these mountains rather boring but near Christoph’s cabin, there are dozens of small, winding canyons and rock formations you might think belong in Canyonlands or Capitol Reef. We went out there for days on end, getting the place ready for him, and in the evenings we would hike around the awesome landscape, almost wishing we had a billion euros to toss around.

Copyright 2010. No part of this writing may be reproduced without the prior written authority of the author.

Homeward bound

I got kicked out of my Peace Corps training a couple days early, so I beat feet and made it as far as Kuruman today. Tomorrow I'll be back in the village and regularly scheduled blogging will resume.

Sep 28, 2010

More marathon

Last Saturday I ran another half-marathon. This one was quite a bit flatter than the last one, something which made it a lot harder on my cardiovascular system but also made me much less sore afterwards. I somewhat overestimated my preparation and didn't pace myself that well, so I didn't beat my old time. However I still made it in under two hours, 1:54 on the nose.

If I'm going to keep running these things I reckon I should adjust my training program to include more strenuous, shorter workouts. Currently I've been running extremely long distances but rather slowly; my sense is that I need to work on speed more. Any advice?

Sep 27, 2010


At the friends' house I was visiting they have a large mulberry tree and I picked a bowl full for sandwiches and snacks. They're delicious.

I'm at a training for the next couple days, so blogging might be a bit sparse for awhile. We're at a lovely lodge outside Pretoria and the food is excellent.

Sep 25, 2010

Guest Post: Study Finds Four Critical Lessons That Mustn’t Be Learned from Gulf Spill

Dateline: August 17, 2010, Washington DC. In a white paper released today by the American Exceptionalism Institute, analysts identified a quartet of potentially disastrous notions that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could allow to gain a foothold in US public awareness. “Of course the danger is always there, but this time the calamity went on for so long and the damage was so immediate and graphic, we’re concerned one of more of these ideas may go viral,” said Stan Esquo lead author of the study. “Ever since FDR identified fear as the only thing we have to fear, economists have understood that the single biggest factor determining the health of the nation’s economy is how we feel about it. Consumer confidence is a fragile commodity and our enemies could see this as an easy target; any one of these pernicious concepts could bring the country to its knees.” The institute has been battling one of these ideas, namely that we are blindly destroying ourselves by the heedless use of fossil fuels, since the early 70’s. “Global usage has more than doubled since that first scare,” said Esquo with noticeable pride, “If we’d have gotten serious about conservation we might have missed the whole 'muscle car' period, which most people regard as the apex of American culture.”

Esquo believes that the second most threatening concept is the idea that the largest consequences of our actions are the unintended ones. “We intend to make the desert bloom but it turns out we are also dotting our grandchildren’s landscape with enormous mud wallows, we think kudzu makes a lovely house plant and giving antibiotics to cattle helps to grow a quicker sirloin. ” he said. The study predicts a 6 point drop in industrial output for every million Americans this dawns on.

A third major risk, Esquo pointed out, is damage to the delicate but absolutely critical belief people possess that it is Not Their Fault. The importance of citizens not making the connection between their own habits and the ruin of the gulf ecosystem cannot be overstressed. “We need people to keep idling their Escalades for an hour in a 115 degree parking lot with the air conditioning on, we need people screaming around on jet skis and 'hunting' with a one-ton dually and a trailer full of four wheelers, generators and a gas barbecue. Our system is predicated on the thoughtless use of infinite resources and nobody needs to know any different,” said Esquo, “That oil would have done about as much damage to the planet if it had been pumped into a tanker and burned like it usually is. Except nobody would notice. The worst thing about this spill is it’s so hard to ignore.”

The fourth member of these menacing quadruplets, Esquo said, is a possibility that populace begin to question growth as the ultimate panacea. There is not a single economist, politician of either stripe or public figure who doesn’t hold it as the holy grail of national well being, as if it were wholly beneficial, productive and possible. “It’s not possible. Not forever or even much longer,” said Esquo. “An economy driven by consumer demand and predicated on growth is like a snake that can gain weight eating its own tail. It is critical that nobody gets this or the whole thing might unravel.” he said. “Our job is to keep people from thinking things through. There is a natural tendency to avoid unpleasant thoughts but a disaster like the gulf spill can really shake a person. We are planning to produce a series of one hour prime-time specials about 'Octomom’s Five-Minute Slops for Twenty,' 'Lindsay Lohan’s Bimonthly Makeovers' and the 'Crisis of International Puppy Slavery' to take people’s minds off it.”

As an adjunct to the fearsome foursome, in a chapter entitled “Pivotal Preposterous Principles,” the paper identifies several other key fantasies that keep the economy afloat. “We can fix it,” is what everyone from from Barack Obama to BP genuinely believes. “The idea that we can somehow backtrack to initial conditions when we screw up the world cannot be questioned,” Esquo stated. “That might be the end of the tremendous progress we have made screwing up the world in the largest and most rapid world-screwing epoch in earth’s history,” he said. “We can’t actually fix it. No way. It took a jillion years to make. Our powers are almost entirely disruptive. We can’t make a worm. I’m concerned that people might notice.”

“The commonplace belief that the world is the dominion of mankind as planned by a wise and benevolent supreme being is also a strong force in our corner,” said Esquo. “ You’ve really got to have your head under a bushel or some other dark place to swallow this one, but luckily, there’s plenty of bushels and other dark places.”

The study also indentifies the notion that “we know what we’re doing,” as an important illusion. Esquo wrapped up his presentation by saying “All you had to do is watch BP flounder for a month while the Gulf of Mexico was poisoned to choke that idea like a crude-breathing porpoise. We’re performing an inadvertent global experiment on the only planet we know of in the universe that contains liquid water and I, for one, can’t wait to see how it turns out, because, as far as the outcome, we’re clueless. Be sure to check our special on 'Cloning Jonbenet Ramsey.'"

Sep 23, 2010

Double book review: Fiasco and A History of Iraq

Summary: These two excellent works complement each other nicely to give an overview of Iraq with a focus on the recent war.

Up today: Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks, and A History of Iraq, by Charles Tripp.

I'll start with the former. Fiasco's main strength is that it is an extremely detailed and well-written account of just what happened to bring the US to war and how the occupation was carried out. The 2003-2004 period is most damning. It was as if Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon, Lord Nelson, and Eisenhower had been set on a panel with the express purpose of designing a strategy to fail as utterly as any in history. The unbelievable stupidity and incompetence of the high command, both military and civilian, is distinguished from the performance of the actual soldiers, which mostly seemed haplessly unprepared for the conflict they were dumped into, but tried to make the best of an impossible situation. Later, after some shakeups at the top command, techniques that were at least in the same galaxy as sanity were implemented with some positive effect.

However, I struggled with the book's essential sympathy for the nation building project. Ricks details the more successful efforts of leaders like David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster, who were able to understand and implement better tactics for fighting an insurgency and building a country. I summed it up in my own mind as 2/5ths Marine Corps, 1/5th Army Corps of Engineers, and 2/5ths Peace Corps. This and the catastrophic yet easily avoidable mistakes at the beginning of the war combine to make an account that in many respects doesn't discredit the doctrine of pre-emption (indeed, Ricks explicitly states he could still support such a policy in the right circumstances), but rather tries to salvage it. I have to grudgingly admit that Ricks' account convinced me that such things are possible in theory, but he doesn't really grapple head-on with the policy issues raised by the doctrine of pre-emption.

Tripp's book, on the other hand, gives that broader perspective. It is a serious academic work, a kind of shallow overview for the nonspecialist or historian looking for a place to start deep research. It's a bit of a slog at times, but worth it for the overarching narratives that were driving a lot of what happened during the US invasion that Ricks, buried deep in the details, misses. Iraq's initial boundaries, a relic of the collapse of the Ottoman empire based entirely on political convenience, are described in the context of the British colonial action after WWI. The long history of monarchy and of increasingly violent coups by military leaders is followed, logically ending with the ruthless Saddam Hussein. The American occupation is given the same kind of treatment as every other Iraq regime, and tied into the narrative threads of the previous history, something the Ricks does not do.

Sep 22, 2010

A personal taxi record

Coming home the other day we got 23 people into a taxi licensed for 15. Can anyone top that in South Africa? (I know in Chad and elsewhere sometimes there are way more.)

Sep 21, 2010

The ultimate in light pollution

These things are called Apollo lights. They're basically gigantic streetlights that shine in all directions. I'm staying at a friend's before I head into Pretoria for my midservice physical and they've got one about twenty yards from their house. It makes it brighter than a full moon all night, but it does make their house very easy to find.

Sep 20, 2010

Quote of the day

"There is no policy that President Obama has passed or proposed that added as much to the deficit as the Republican Party's $3.9 trillion extension of the Bush tax cuts." --Ezra Klein.

Sep 19, 2010

Collected links

1. Jon Stewart profile in the NY magazine.

2. Industrial agriculture might be the only thing to save us from the coming food crisis. Something I've long suspected.

3. Bleak houses in Florida.

4. A series on HAMP, the program purportedly designed to deal with the mortgage problem. This is an issue I've totally neglected, but digging into it a little now I see it's the biggest economic policy failure of the Obama administration (with the possible exception of their bizarre foot-dragging on nominees to the Fed board). Ordinary folks got screwed big time by this thing. I'm glad my parents own their house free and clear.

5. Emerson on self reliance.

Sep 18, 2010

Fire at the taxi rank

On the way home the other day I noticed the bathroom structure at the taxi rank had burned down. No idea what caused it, and nobody on the taxi seemed to know either.

Sep 17, 2010

Happy anniversary!

One year ago today I was placed at my permanent site as an official Peace Corps volunteer. Hooray!

Sep 16, 2010

Politics in action

Why the Dems will probably lose the House: they'll alienate their own supporters before risking Jimmy Carter cooties.
It was all a little odd, to say the least. They refused to accept the Carter panel as a historic relic, or even to pose for a picture with the students and the petition they’d brought with them. Asked to do something easy and symbolic to rekindle a little of the joy that had turned out so many of us as volunteers for Obama in 2008, they point blank said no. In a less than overwhelming gesture, they did, however, pass out Xeroxed copies of a 2009 memorandum from Vice President Biden about federal energy policy.

I can tell you exactly what it felt like, because those three students were brave and walked out graciously, heads high, and kept their tears back until we got to the sidewalk. And then they didn’t keep them back, because it’s a tough thing to learn for the first time how politics can work.

If you want to know about the much-discussed enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican bases, in other words, this was it in action. As Jean Altomare told The New York Times, “We went in without any doubt about the importance of this. They handed us a pamphlet.” And Amanda Nelson added, “I didn’t expect I’d get to shake President Obama’s hand, but it was really shocking to me to find out that they really didn’t seem to care.”

Blog news

I'm getting my phone fixed this weekend, so posting might be a little light for a few days. I've got some good ones queued up, though, so don't get too worried.

Sep 15, 2010

The Federal Reserve Board nominees

Yglesias has been pounding this issue for a long time. The Fed has probably more control over the economy than any other body including Congress, yet Obama only got around to nominating people for the three empty seats in April. Apparently Chris Dodd is saying that the Senate might not even get around to voting on these nominations:

I think I’ve shouted myself hoarse about the importance of these nominees already, but just to underscore it the Federal Reserve controls the economy. And it’s “independent.” But like the Supreme Court, the President gets to pick who sits on the Board of Governors. This is an important power. Appointing good people and getting them confirmed is really important.

Meanwhile, on the “limited amount of time” note how insane the Senate is. A sane legislative body could easily vote on three nominees in twenty minutes if it’s in a rush. If the Senate wants to take more time to actually debate, that would be nice too. But these nominees have been on the table since April and nobody seems to have anything to say about them. So just vote!

Deep thought

Heath Ledger's Joker is a cross between Gregory House and Osama bin Laden.

Sep 14, 2010

Department of WTF, plagiarism bureau

It's pretty common for content to be stolen online, usually from more famous people. But I recently ran across this post, which a mangling of a post my sister wrote some time ago. It's apparently some kind of lake hire company, and it seems like they just processed it through some kind of synonym machine and inserted "lake hire" in random places. The result is like a breed of surrealist poetry. They transformed this:

Back at camp the other two cars have a story of their own. The Lieutenant got a flat, too. Blew it on the highway at 65 mph. Loud pop but no loss of control. We now have 4 cars and no spares. It's time to drive the 100+ miles to the nearest large town. Besides, we're out of beer.

Now, what do you do when you blow four tires on dirt roads in rental cars? Well, the Captain decides, you try to hide it from the rental company and hope the wrath of our sponsors is less than that of the rental companies. It's only an extra $1000 and a wasted day, right? They already paid for our plane tickets, materials, and cars; this is hardly a drop in the bucket. The new tires go on the spare rims, the spares go on the original rims and the new tires go under the vehicles, where, hopefully, no one will look and see that they are different tires.

to this:

lake hire
backside at camp the additional two cars boast a falsehood of their own. the substitute got a tedious, too. blew it on the highway at 65 mph. loud pop but no beating of hold sway over. we now boast 4 cars lake rentals texas and no spares.lake hire it's epoch to constrain the 100+ miles to the adjacent bulky settlement. furthermore, we're out of beer.

now,lake hire come again? do you do at what time you swipe four tires on dirt roads in hire cars? thriving, the commander decides, you try to secrete it commencing the hire set and aspiration the wrath of our sponsors is fewer than with the intention of of the hire companies. it's solitary an mega 00 and a tired out day, right? they by now rewarded for our seaplane tickets, resources,lake hire and cars; this is almost not a plunge in the pail. the new tires go on the get by without rims, the spares go on the creative rims and the new tires go beneath the vehicles, everyplace, optimistically, no one willpower glare and see with the intention of they are discrete tires.lake hire

I challenge anyone to read those two paragraphs out loud without laughing. The whole post is worth a read. I'm not even sure these guys are actually plagiarizing—this is surely a new creation of significant merit, accident or no.

Collected links

1. Fareed Zakaria says America overreacted to 9/11.

2. A fascinating review of a new book on Roald Dahl. He was probably my favorite author when I was a kid.

3. The umpteenth result showing no link between vaccines and autism.

4. Thirty ways humanity could end.

5. NYPD alumni take on America's crime problem. This one has a lot of conservative leg-humping but if you can get past that it's still pretty good.

Sep 13, 2010

And then there were two

As I predicted, the wife half of the couple that lived in the nearest village is now gone, so there is now only myself and one other (who lives about 20k in the other direction) in the Moshaweng valley (shown in the picture). In a rather strange definition of joke she decided up and disappearing without saying goodbye would be funny. In any case, I'm excited to meet with some of the folks from the primary school in her old village as it is far, far better than my school. There is also a recently refurbished computer lab, courtesy of another volunteer and myself (in a lesser role), so hopefully I can keep myself busy for the remaining year.

Hey, you know any Zulus?

One of the rather surprising things I've noticed here is the fine-grained nature of discrimination. Sure, there's plenty of the standard "all blacks are X" sort of thing, but I often hear more specific complaints. I had heard stories of this sort of thing, but hadn't experienced it myself up close until last weekend. I was buying some blank DVDs at a small shop and, as he was putting the discs into sleeves, he asked, "Hey, you know any Zulus?"

"A couple," I said.

"Are they looking for a job?"

"I don't think so."

He sighed wistfully. "I could use a good about Coloureds?"

"I know a few, but they've got pretty good jobs already."

"You aren't looking for a job, are you?"

I laughed. "Not at the moment, but I'll let you know if something opens up."

"I just don't want to hire another Tswana. I just fired the fourth Tswana this month. They're lazy people, you know. Don't want to work."

I shrugged. "If I run into any industrious folk, I'll send them your way."

One of the more troubling effects I've noticed is that I've become rather inured to blatant racism. Something like that would have provoked an enormous reaction a year ago, but with a dozen conversations with drunken Afrikaners ranting about the "fucking kaffirs," it just rolls off. Hopefully I can regain some perspective when I come home.

Sep 12, 2010

Making fence

Another one of my host brother's handyman projects has been constructing fence the old-fashioned way. You take this template here and twist the fence together wire by wire. It's immensely time-consuming, but time is one thing we've got here, and it's got to be way cheaper than buying the prefab stuff from Cashbuild. It's also a good excuse for me to hang out with the family, as this thing is set up right outside my door.

Sep 11, 2010

Learning styles

This article was an interesting bit on how to learn, but mostly I was glad to learn that a lot of the information that people laid down at my training last year was complete crap, as I suspected:

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Could be confirmation bias, but worth a read anyway.

Obama and civil liberties

"If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties." --Barack Obama

September 11th seems like a good day to talk liberty. I occasionally have conversations about civil liberties with volunteers here. My view is that, while Obama has to his credit officially revoked torture, he is basically similar or worse than Bush on civil liberties. Not many care, or seem to me at least they'd rather not think about things. A few days back we got even more evidence on for that case:

In a 6-5 ruling issued this afternoon, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals handed the Obama administration a major victory in its efforts to shield Bush crimes from judicial review, when the court upheld the Obama DOJ's argument that Bush's rendition program, used to send victims to be tortured, are "state secrets" and its legality thus cannot be adjudicated by courts.

Basically, unless the Supreme Court reverses the decision, any lawsuit may be dismissed if the government claims state secrets are threatened. Sullivan has a great post laying it all out:

I tried valiantly not to believe this of Holder and Obama for months; I tried to see their legitimate concerns about exposing a war machine when it is still at war; I understand the need for some extraordinary renditions; and the necessity for executive power in emergencies to act swiftly, as the Founders intended. Yes war requires some secrecy. But Obama has gone much further than this now. The cloak of secrecy he is invoking is not protecting national security but protecting war crimes. And this is now inescapably his cloak. He is therefore a clear and knowing accessory to war crimes, and should at some point face prosecution as well, if the Geneva Conventions mean anything any more. This won't happen in my lifetime, barring a miracle. Because Obama was a test case. If an outsider like him, if a constitutional scholar like him, at a pivotal moment for accountability like the last two years, cannot hold American torturers to account, there is simply no accountability for American torture. When the CIA actually rehires as a contractor someone who held a power-drill against the skull of a prisoner, you know that change from within this system is impossible. The system is too powerful. It protects itself. It makes a mockery of the rule of law. It doesn't only allow torture; it rewards it.

The case yesterday is particularly egregious because it forbade a day in court for torture victims even if only non-classified evidence was used. Think of that for a minute. It shreds any argument that national security is in any way at stake here. It's definitionally not protection of any state secret if all that is relied upon is evidence that is not secret. And so this doctrine has been invoked by Obama not to protect national security but to protect war criminals from the law. There is no other possible interpretation.

It's worth noting that the very case that established the state secrets precedent, United States vs. Reynolds, was later revealed to be the most craven kind of ass-covering from the Air Force. I'm not sure why this sort of thing isn't provoking howling outrage at least from liberals. Tea party "conservatives" don't seem to mind—their definition of tyranny seems to be Obamacare. Greenwald has been saying this sort of thing for a long time:

What is most damaging about all of this is exactly what Goldsmith celebrated: that Obama's political skills, combined with his status as a Democrat, is strengthening Bush/Cheney terrorism policies and solidifying them further. For the last eight years, roughly half the country -- Republicans, Bush followers -- was trained to cheer for indefinite detention, presidential secrecy, military commissions, warrantless eavesdropping, denial of due process, a blind acceptance of any presidential assertion that these policies are necessary to Keep Us Safe, and the claim that only fringe Far Leftist Purists -- civil liberties extremists -- could possibly object to any of that.

Now, much of the other half of the country, the one that once opposed those policies -- Democrats, Obama supporters -- are now reciting the same lines, adopting the same mentality, because doing so is necessary to justify what Obama is doing. It's hard to dispute the Right's claim that Bush's Terrorism approach is being vindicated by Obama's embrace of its "essential elements." That's what Goldsmith means when he says that Obama is making these policies stronger and more palatable, and it's what media stars mean when they describe Bush/Cheney policies as Centrist: now that it's not just an unpopular Republican President but also a highly charismatic and popular Democratic President advocating and defending these core Bush/Cheney policies, they do become the political consensus of the United States.

I'll let Sullivan have the last word: "Have I been radicalized by this? You betcha. Because this is so plainly not a nation under the rule of law anymore. And there are very few political issues more important than that."

Sep 10, 2010

On Qur'an burning

A couple weeks ago, I said, "I'm continually amazed at the depths to which American politics continues to sink. Every couple months, I say, 'Jeez, we have to have bottomed out by now. Right? Right?!' Nope." It continues apace. Today I got an email from the Peace Corps security officer. It read:
The Department of State is issuing this Travel Alert to caution U.S. citizens of the potential for anti-U.S. demonstrations in many countries in response to stated plans by a church in Florida to burn Qur'ans on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Demonstrations, some violent, have already taken place in several countries, including Afghanistan and Indonesia, in response to media reports of the church's plans. The potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high. We urge you to pay attention to local reaction to the situation, and to avoid areas where demonstrations may take place.
Once again, words fail. I'm in no danger here, I judge, but the sheer all-consuming vortex of stupid that Palin, her enablers, and her Christianist allies have touched off is staggering. Sure, they've officially condemned the guy, but that doesn't change much. Josh Marshall had a good thought on the conservative about-face:
This is the standard approach of race haters and demagogues. They keep stirring the pot, churning out demonizing rhetoric and hate speech. Then some marginal figure does something nuts and suddenly ... oh, wait, I didn't mean burn Korans. Where'd you get that idea from? We were just saying that Islam is a violent, anti-American religion and that American Muslims should stop building their mosques and focus on apologizing for 9/11 and maybe get out of America. But burn the Koran? No way.

Warm fuzzies

Happiness is going on a 20k run listening to Ken Kesey, stretching the stiffness out of my calves, pouring a hot bucket bath, and finding a pot of beans just finished simmering. Alone doesn't have to be lonely.

Pants sizes

Something I've learned recently is that I wear a somewhat larger size than I was used to in the states, at least in terms of relative position in the clothing rack. Though South Africa uses the metric system, they still have a inch-based size scale for pants, or something similar anyways. In the US I used to have to root through piles of larger pants for something that fit (especially as I'm relatively short as well), and they were often the smallest or second-smallest waist size in the place. But since most stores have at least some coverage for someone my size, so I could usually find a pair or two.

Here, though, I'm perfectly average or even a bit above average, so my size is very common but also sells out very quickly. All this is basically a lead-in to an interesting graph I found:

I wonder the graph would look like for my size. In the US I normally wear a 32 which is comfortably loose. Is it just a linear conversion factor? Or only above a certain size? Perhaps some sort of polynomial where the larger the size, the larger the distortion. I'm sure some math nut is working those answers now.

(h/t: Sullivan)

Sep 9, 2010

Collected links

1. South African government considers internet censorship.

2. Michael Lewis has an amazing look at the Greek fiscal situation.

3. Mushrooms used in a preliminary study to treat depression in cancer patients.

4. US student became a drug kingpin in Mexico.

5. Jeffrey Goldberg (!) sits down with Fidel Castro.

A man after my own heart

"I think it is that many modern Conservatives intuitively base their analysis of the world on a philosophy is that anathema to my worldview. Their view is that if you take a responsible, measured, well-reasoned approach to the world things will work out. Failure is thus a sign that you have not done that.

My sense is that this is fundamentally crap.

First of all things are not going to work out. You are going to die. Your friends and family are going to die. Everything you care about and everything you ever worked for will be destroyed. This story, our story, only has one ending and it is death and destruction.

If you don’t recognize that, you are living in a fantasy world.

Second, even in the short term your plans almost certainly won’t work out. Most ideas are bad ideas and there are infinitely more ways to fuck something up than to get it right.

To wit, clean living is not some form of salvation. Nor, is prudence assurance that that you and your loved ones will be okay. Suffering is inevitable and the best one can say is that it hasn’t happened to me – yet." --Karl Smith

Sep 8, 2010

Adventures in dubious construction

Here you can see my new pit toilet. The old one was one of the positive things I listed during my brief attempt to think positive last October. Well, that thing finally filled up, and this was placed on top of a conveniently extant hole that used to be some kind of basement or cellar, so far as I can tell. They just cleaned out the hole, wrenched the old enclosure off the previous toilet, and suspended it over the hole. I have to give credit to my host brother, who since he mostly recovered from his AIDS/TB nadir has proven quite handy around the place. (I spent some time in the hospital with him a while back, maybe I can wrestle that experience into a post someday.) My host mother hired some men to dig another hole next to the old toilet, but they mostly just drank and gave out after about 4.5 feet.

Though the hole probably isn't deep enough to satisfy the building code (guffaw), it's way more than wide enough, as you can see. This should give it enough volume to last to the end of my service. I'm just hoping we can extend that covering to the rest of the hole so one of the local drunks doesn't pitch down there some bleary Sunday.

The strike is on hold

Apparently the unions have agreed to a 21-day pause in the strike as the latest terms are negotiated. So today was the first day back in school in almost four weeks. Teaching middle schoolers is just as obnoxious as I remember, but with a 3.5 week break they've forgotten almost everything I taught them. Back to square one.

Sep 6, 2010

Thomas Maresco, ctd

Thinking more about his death I inevitably think about my own safety in a country that is substantially more dangerous than Lesotho. Even given my lengthy history of muggings, I have to come to the conclusion that though my Peace Corps service is somewhat dangerous, it is far more likely that I would be killed in a taxi accident than in some kind of botched robbery. The vast majority of criminals are not looking to kill someone, rather they just want my money and possessions. Still frightening, though. Jesse chimes in here. Apparently he's got armed guards around his place, though I imagine that's more necessary in a larger town. I have no guards, but my site is so far out in the sticks that no one ever gives me trouble.

Though I didn't know Mr. Maresco, he seems from all accounts to have been an excellent sort of fellow. He taught science, coached a youth basketball team, and started a swimming club in the short time he was in Lesotho, and was well liked in his host community. I know his presence shall continue to live on in the people he influenced and the lives he changed.

Face of the day

This is a Brazilian military police officer in São Paulo. What do you suppose is on her mind?

Education in Brazil

Brazil's continuing fitful emergence as South America's first great power of modern times has highlighted some of the similarities it shares with South Africa. They are both massively unequal in terms of income and have daunting crime problems. Brazil's crime is somewhat less of a problem (the homicide rate is 25% less overall, 30 vs. 40 per 100,000), but some of the inner cities have war zone levels of murder. Maceió's rate, for example, is above 104. Brazil has a disturbing history of racial oppression, and some have called the current inequality problem "social apartheid." (For my part, I think that probably confuses the issue more than anything else, and is mostly an attempt to brand the Brazilian government with the moral stigma of the Apartheid regime.)

In any case, education seems plagued by many of the same problems as here:
Over the past decade, Brazil’s students have scored among the lowest of any country’s students taking international exams for basic skills like reading, mathematics and science, trailing fellow Latin American nations like Chile, Uruguay and Mexico.

Brazilian 15-year-olds tied for 49th out of 56 countries on the reading exam of the Program for International Student Assessment, with more than half scoring in the test’s bottom reading level in 2006, the most recent year available. In math and science, they fared even worse.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves,” said Ilona Becskeházy, executive director of the Lemann Foundation, an organization based in São Paulo devoted to improving Brazilian education. “This means that 15-year-olds in Brazil are mastering more or less the same skills as 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds in countries such as Denmark or Finland.” [...]

“I want every child to study much more than I could, much more,” [President da Silva] said while announcing a program to give laptops to students. “And for all of them to get a university diploma, for all of them to have a vocational diploma.”

The urgency could hardly be clearer. Brazil has already established itself as a global force, riding a commodity and domestic consumption boom to become one of the largest economies in the world. With huge new oil discoveries and an increasingly important role in providing food and raw materials to China, the country is poised to surge even more.

But the nation’s educational shortcomings are leaving many Brazilians on the sidelines. More than 22 percent of the roughly 25 million workers available to join Brazil’s work force this year were not considered qualified to meet the demands of the labor market, according to a government report in March.

“In certain cities and states we have a problem hiring workers, even though we do have employment,” said Márcio Pochmann, president of the Institute for Applied Economic Research, the government agency that produced the March report. Earlier estimates showed that tens of thousands of jobs went unclaimed because there were not enough qualified professionals to fill them.
This is classic South Africa. One section of the economy is highly developed with a large demand for skilled workers. Meanwhile, there is a large mass of uneducated low-skilled workers, and an education system that is failing to produce the skilled workers needed. The regional power is being crushed on standardized tests by less-developed neighbors. One major difference, however, is that Brazil's economy has remained diverse enough to employ most of those un- or low-skilled people. Unemployment in Brazil is around 7.3%, while in South Africa it is closer to 25%.

(On a side note, South Africa's and Brazil's situation is structural unemployment. I got in an argument with another volunteer here some time ago; she said that "Obama's new entitlement programs" had doomed the USA to 10% unemployment in perpetuity "just like in Europe." Putting aside the fact that "Europe" does not universally have 10% unemployment and that the new health care bill (about the only entitlement adjustment) mostly doesn't take effect until 2014, this is simply wrong. She was claiming structural, permanent unemployment because of all those people now too lazy to look for jobs, but that situation is illustrated above—a large unemployed population, but some industries that simply can't find the workers they need. The USA, on the other had, is facing a classic bout of cyclical unemployment, a shortfall in aggregate demand, a recession, where practically every industry takes a nosedive at once.)

On the face of things, I feel more optimism for Brazil than for South Africa. Despite the failure of the education system, they still manage to employ a very respectable percentage of the population. They've become a gigantic food exporter in the last 30 years. Crime is high, but stable and dropping slowly. The political system is stable and not overwhelmingly dominated by one party. So long as they focus on the basics for education (e.g. reading, writing, and maths) and don't try and run before they crawl, things should continue to improve.

UPDATE: Great minds think alike.

Sep 5, 2010

Blog news: new domain

As I should have done from the beginning, I now have this blog under my own custom domain, and am now publishing under my real name: Ryan Cooper. I was at first concerned about people from the village being able to find this blog by searching for my name, but I recently learned that when you search "Ryan Cooper" in Google most of the first twenty pages are taken up with a serious pants-type chiseled model, who'd be as hot as me if he had less hair.

It was stupidly easy once I got the domain registered and set up, which cost about $11.50 for one year and about half an hour of following instructions online. I used GoDaddy and this page. Blogger even switched over all my archives to the new domain without any prompting whatsoever.

Update your links:

Thomas Maresco, RIP

Thomas was a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho (pronounced leh-SOO-too), a country entirely surrounded by South Africa. He was shot to death in what appears to be a robbery. My thoughts are with his friends and family.

Sep 4, 2010

The government should print money

One of my good friends (who is now getting his doctorate at Stanford) has a father who's heavy into the conservative thing. I once got into a discussion with him about the economic crisis and what we should do in response (this was the summer of 2009). He was extremely concerned about inflation. "Obama's going to turn this country in Zimbabwe. He's just printing money!" I said that's exactly what the government should do, at least to some extent, but as I recall my explanation why was rather muddled and I don't think he was convinced.

Enter Yglesias, with probably the clearest example I've ever read on how simply printing money can help a brother out:
But valuable resources and money are actually different things.

To see the relevance of this, imagine what happens if you’ve got a country with full employment, and suddenly some guys show up with suitcases full of really good counterfeit money looking to buy stuff. Well, since people mistake the counterfeit for money, they’re happy to exchange goods and services for it. But the mere arrival of counterfeit hasn’t increased the quantity of goods and services the country can produce. The counterfeiters want a maid, so they need to find someone’s existing maid and offer her higher wages to go work for them. The counterfeiters buy some shoes, so there are fewer pairs of shoes for everyone else. What “has to come from somewhere” in this case isn’t the money (which is fake) it’s the maids and the shoes. There are only so many to go around.

But suppose the counterfeiters come to a country that’s fallen into recession? Here it’s a different situation. If they want to hire a maid, they can find one who was laid off a month ago. If they want to buy some shoes, this creates a very temporary shortage and the shoe-factory quickly un-cancels that extra shift. Then the guys at the shoe factory have higher wages and celebrate with a night out at the bar. Suddenly, the brewery needs more manpower and the bar needs to re-hire that waitress they had to let go. It’s the miracle of counterfeiting.

But still, that’s counterfeiting. We can’t just counterfeit. The money still has to come from somewhere, right? Well, yes, literally speaking any money spent doing anything has to have an origin. But the government can do something even better than counterfeit—it can create real money. And if banks are holding excess reserves, the government can adopt policies that discourage them from doing so. If banks aren’t holding excess reserves, the government can adopt policies that reduce the quantity of reserves they’re required to hold. And if people have money that’s just sitting around because they like safety and liquidity, the government can offer to sell them safe & liquid treasuries and then redeploy the money for other purposes.
Speaking more generally, printing money does cause inflation, which currently is at a historic low:
Inflation helps also, to help push past something called the paradox of thrift, which is basically the idea that if everybody stops spending and starts saving at the same time, the economy will fall into a recession due to a fall in aggregate demand, and total saving will fall. If money is worth less in the future (inflation) people will be more likely to spend it now when it's worth more. The US is coming off a big debt binge and trying to unwind, but we're still in a paradox of thrift world.

My Setswana name

Kristen has an interesting topic that I don't believe I've mentioned yet: the Setswana name most of us receive, along with the associated barrel of nicknames. Mine is "Thabo," (pronounced TAH-bo) which linguistically speaking comes from the Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, etc.) family of languages, I believe, but has migrated around all South Africa. It is extremely common everywhere—South Africa's illustrious former president had it, though I'll bet he didn't have it emblazoned on his burglar bars. It means "happiness."

There are lots of nicknames: T-bos, Thabs, Thabi, etc. None as hilarious as Kristen's, though. One that isn't really a nickname but I don't like is baas, which is Afrikaans for "boss," and carries distinct racial undertones. I try to squelch that when I can but it does pop up now and again.

Sep 3, 2010

Linguistics blogging

The recent efforts of the NYT on broad social and cultural phenomena have been rather disappointing. However, this one shows a bit more promise. It's about the idea that which language we speak influences the way we think:
In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. [...]
Whorf's idea is basically the same as the one behind Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four. For several reasons, I know a bit more about linguistics than anthropology or sociology (which is to say slightly more than zero). It's safe to say that's Orwell's critique of obfuscatory language in that work and in his famous essay "Politics and the English Language" has been discredited, in the sense of a particularly structured language forbidding certain thoughts (however satisfying those works remain, especially the latter's attack on bureaucratic language). But that doesn't rule out more subtle forms of manipulation.
Since there is no evidence that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.
More interestingly yet:
The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn. [...]

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.” [...]

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.
These examples seem to prove that language at least has some channeling effect on our minds. I wonder how this intersects with theories of propaganda. Anyone care to elaborate or recommend a synthesis of Chomsky and Orwell?

Full Metal Disney

A re-imagining:

Sep 2, 2010

A view from the strike

Yesterday a couple public sector employees who have been heavily involved with the strike stopped by to chat. They described their activities over the past few weeks: toi-tois in Kuruman, Kimberley, and Bloemfontein. They said the ones in Kuruman have been mostly peaceful, but apparently the ones in Kimberley had been more contentious—one had an angry bruise on her calf from being shot with a rubber bullet. They blamed this on the intransigence of the Kimberley police. "They're animals," one said.

From their perspective, the strike would be over when Zuma capitulates entirely to the union demands; the recent offer of a 7.5% raise and R800 housing allowance was inadequate. They want 8.6% and R1000 (their demand from the beginning). They said so much money had been spent on the World Cup that it was unfair for South Africans to be denied the money now.

Collected links

1. Real America watch: large cities produce a much smaller share of professional athletes than those under a half million.

2. Paul Krugman explains why goldbugs are totally out to lunch.

3. Egg farms are gross.

4. Banks make some slight moves towards environmentalism. Color me skeptical.

5. Highly dangerous oil exploration continues apace.

6. Ah, Japan.

7. A majority of Republicans think Obama wants to impose Sharia law worldwide.

Sep 1, 2010

Sentences of the highest quality

Yglesias: "As you’ve probably heard politicians of both parties emphasize, ninety million percent of job creation comes from small businesses—who, with the exception of family farms, are by far the most precious of the Lord’s creations."

China advice bleg

I've basically made the decision to continue serving or working abroad after my Peace Corps service in South Africa is over, probably in China or Taiwan as I would like to learn a bit of standard Mandarin and gain some perspective on an up-and-coming power. I've talked a few people who lived there or are currently working there right now who have been enormously helpful, but I'm trying to get as broad a perspective as possible. If you have any advice, contacts, or other thoughts you wouldn't mind sharing, I would be much indebted if you would leave a comment or shoot me an email.

UPDATE: It seems that extending my Peace Corps service is out. Apparently your close of service date needs to line up closely with the beginning of service date for the desired country, and Peace Corps is fairly inflexible about COS dates here. So take that into consideration, I guess.